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Henry Byous was incarcerated from 2011 to 2013 in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison, or the Alcatraz of the south, for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Byous was selected to participate in the Orleans Parish Re-entry Workforce Development program, which offered vocational training for non-violent drug offenders. The program allowed him to become a certified electrician and obtain 15 other life skills certifications. Yet, Byous said finding work and managing life after release was a challenge because of his record.

“To have my record scraped, where no one is able to judge me by that record, I would love that,” said Byous, now a father of three and owner of a small business in New Orleans.

The question of whether to automatically expunge the records of people with marijuana-related convictions remains a central facet of the legalization conversation in cities and states where weed has been decriminalized. Expunging records may seem like a natural step when legalizing a formerly prohibited activity, but opponents of expungement counter that since the offense was illegal at the time it was committed, it should remain.

New York is taking some steps toward expunging marijuana-related convictions. A 2019 law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will seal the convictions of more than 150,000 people with marijuana-related convictions, some of which date back to the 70s, and nearly 25,000 of those records will be permanently erased. This law will seal all marijuana-related convictions, but sealing does not equal complete expungement, which still requires petitioning the courts. While sealing records can be helpful for people with marijuana-related convictions, expungement remains the ultimate goal of many organizers, activists, and formerly incarcerated people themselves.

"To have my record scraped, where no one is able to judge me by that record, I would love that"
Henry Byous, father of three and former non-violent drug offender

Avery Bizzel, a community organizer at the Community Service Society of New York in New York City, views the expungement of criminal records for all people who have been incarcerated for marijuana-related charges as crucial.

“I work here at CSS, and expungement is the reason why I got into this work,” Bizzel said. “It had to do with actually expunging criminal records for those things that become legalized. So that is key to re-entry. Because folks — if you have a criminal record — it’s a lifetime barrier to housing. Folks need access to education, and of course they need access to jobs.”

Sandy Guillaume is executive director of Second Chance Re-entry in Long Island, an organization that provides re-entry services to formerly incarcerated people in the Long Island area. Guillaume characterizes the impact of having a criminal record in America as vast. After leaving prison, finding shelter and employment is not only a necessity for people to live, but to prevent being locked back up. The conditions of parole and probation often require proof that you have a stable and permanent residence and are at least actively seeking a job. Having a criminal record can be an insurmountable barrier to these goals, said Guillaume.

“If you have a drug charge, and you need public housing, you have to wait [two] years to be put on the waiting list which is seven years long, which is ridiculous because public housing has a seven-year waiting list in New York,” Guillaume said. “So if you’re formerly incarcerated with a drug charge you have to wait 10 years for the only housing you can afford. That is problematic.”

"If you're formerly incarcerated with a drug charge you have to wait 10 years [in New York] for the only housing you can afford. That is problematic."
Sandy Guillaume, executive director of Second Chance Re-entry in Long Island

Employment discrimination is a reality as well, Guillaume said.

“There are still a lot of companies that find very creative ways to circumvent the law and discriminate against people who were formerly incarcerated, despite the limits of New York,” Guillaume said.

Byous said he had difficulty finding and maintaining gainful employment with a record. While the re-entry program gave him marketable skills, including the electrician certification he uses for his current job as the owner of All Pro Maintenance Services, employment discrimination and the conditions of his probation meant he couldn’t immediately put these skills to work.

“I’m getting ready to get released,” Byous said. “My only option is to go out there and get two jobs. I’m going to be on probation. I just was like, ‘I’m just going home and getting two jobs, working two jobs to just get off probation.”

Byous knew his ability to bring home sufficient income to support his family would require working significant hours, especially since his job prospects were limited by his record.

After his release, Byous’ first jobs were at Big Shot beverages and Papa John’s pizza company. At the time he was also going to court every month for meetings with a re-entry program class. One member was able to start his own business and gain early release from the program. Inspired by the success of his re-entry brother, It was at this time that Byous started his own small business, All Pro Maintenance. Still, he wishes the re-entry programming had presented entrepreneurship as an option earlier

“Jobs are looking at that too,” Byous said. “Whether you have such and such conviction. They’re looking at your record like ‘He ain’t about to sell weed out of here,’ even though you have a good rental history, you still come with a record.”

Guillaume said her clients deal with the same issues.

“I think any bill for legalization has to have a very specific part about expunging and erasing evidence of the arrest, so that an employer who may not want to follow the rules can’t do a background check and see how you’ve been locked up for a crime,” Guillaume said.

She proposes a legal solution.

“There needs to be a state law that people who spent more than a year behind bars need to receive housing services, unemployment services, for that entire population and for anyone under a year who still can’t go back to where they lived,” Guillaume said.

For Byous, the prospect of expungement is yet another side of the same dilemma he faced before incarceration: finding fruitful, long-term work.

“People, who are non-violent, if they are drug dealers, drug dealers are having money problems,” Byous said. “You’ve got two types of people out there. You’ve got the dealer and you’ve got to use the user. The user probably doesn’t want to change, but the dealer is trying to change his life, but he’s caught up in what he’s caught up in. If y’all give this dealer the tools he needs to better himself out there, so he doesn’t have to sell those drugs, you won’t have that problem…the ultimate vision for a drug dealer, you know, is to get the biggest check and get out of this situation.”

Marijuana legalization is unlikely to occur in this legislative session. New York has readjusted its budget to accommodate the costs of the coronavirus pandemic, and the costs of legalizing marijuana this fiscal year became imprudent. While the slowed timeline is in no way a victory on behalf of those fighting for legalization, it also provides the opportunity to continue evolving the bill for another year. Guaranteed expungement for all people with a marijuana conviction would be a welcome addition in the eyes of formerly incarcerated people like Byous, as well as many organizers like Bizzel and Guillaume.

“The fact of the matter is, people of color were in prison three times as much as white people who are abiding the law in the same manner,” Guillaume said. “In the same way that they repealed the crack laws for the drug lords, there should be something said that says, yeah, we made a grave mistake, and this is how we’re trying to repair that.”